Romance guild in upheaval following criticism over the way it handled an author who posted negative online comments about other writers


The Romance Writers of America has filed for bankruptcy protection following several years of infighting and allegations of racism that fractured the organization, causing many of its members to flee.

The Texas-based trade association, which bills itself as the voice of romance writers, has lost roughly 80% of its members over the past five years because of the turmoil.

Now down to just 2,000 members, it can’t cover the costs it committed to paying for its writers conferences, the group said in bankruptcy court documents filed on Wednesday in Houston.

The organization, founded in 1980 to represent and promote writers in fiction’s top-selling genre, said it owes nearly $3 million to hotels where it planned to host the annual meetings.

Mary Ann Jock, the group’s president and an author of seven published romance novels, said in a court filing that the troubles stemmed “predominantly due to disputes concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion” issues between previous board members and others in the romance writing community.

Its membership dropped again after the annual conference was held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carollynn H.G. Callari, an attorney for the association, said it is not going out of business. A proposed reorganization plan submitted to the court should allow the group to emerge swiftly from bankruptcy protection with a healthier financial outlook, she said.

Relationships within the group started to fray in 2019 over the way it treated one of its authors, a Chinese American writer who it said violated the group’s code with negative online comments about other writers and their work. The association reversed its decision, but the uproar led to the resignation of its president and several board members.

Following allegations that it lacked diversity and was predominantly white, the organization called off its annual awards in 2020. Several publishers, including Harlequin, Avon Books and Berkeley Romance, then dropped out from the annual conference. The association later said it would present a new award in honor of Vivian Stephens, a pioneering Black romance novelist and publisher.

The next year, the association faced more anger and eventually withdrew an award for a novel widely criticized for its sympathetic portrait of a cavalry officer who participated in the slaughter of Lakota Indians at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

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